Conversations With Albert Einstein

Ashley Montagu

[Reprinted from Science Digest, July 1985, pp.50-53, 75]

Following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the death of thousands of human beings, a group of scientists, must of whom had worked on the Manhattan Project, questioned the further uses of atomic energy. Late in 1945, their concern led to the founding of the Federation of American Scientists, a branch of which was soon formed in Philadelphia, where I was teaching in medical school. At our first meeting, we discussed how best to educate the public in understanding this new form of energy, its dangers and possible benefits. When I suggested making a film, my colleagues happily tossed the project into my lap.

My script underwent several revisions under their critical eyes, and when it was finally approved we decided to seek Albert Einstein's approval and advice. I phoned his residence in Princeton in the latter part of May 1946 and explained my mission to his secretary, Helen Dukas. A minute later Einstein was on the phone, offering to help the film project in any way.

So, on a fine late spring day in June, I rang the bell at 112 Mercer Street, Princeton, and stated my business to Miss Dukas. "Ah!" she exclaimed, "Hollywood."

"Philadelphia," I corrected, shattering her illusions about a glamorous trip to the West.

In the distance, at the end of the long hallway, I espied Einstein. He wore his usual jersey, baggy pants and slippers. What especially struck me as he approached the doorway was that he seemed not to walk but to glide in a sort of undeliberate dance. It was enchanting. And there he was, bright, sad eyes, cascading while hair, with a smile of greeting on his face, a firm handshake and an invitation to follow him up the stairs to his second-floor study.

His workroom had a large window looking down on a long, brightly planted garden. Against the walls there were two cases crowded with books and periodicals. A plain wooden table held several work papers covered with neat mathematical computations, some pipes and a pouch of tobacco. Einstein, I soon discovered, was addicted to his pipe then. And after doctors ordered him to quit, he would sometimes take an empty one and gesticulate with it as if it were an extension of his hand or a pointer. He later told me that he missed his pipe, adding with a laugh that when he happened to find himself behind a man smoking a pipe on the street, he would follow his fragrant trail of tobacco.

Einstein seated himself in a comfortable lounge chair and invited me to lake the chair opposite him. Alter some polite talk, during which he deemed the title, One World or None, an excellent idea, he asked me to read the script. When I had finished, he removed the ubiquitous pipe from his mouth and exclaimed. "A-one!" I wondered whether he had any suggestions before we went into production. "No," he answered. "It is just right."

Miss Dukas appeared with a tray laden with tea things. While we enjoyed this treat, Einstein underscored the neccessity of finding additional ways to control the uses of atomic energy. International law, he declared, would be a prime means of achieving such control. "But international law exists only in textbooks on international law," I remarked. "Every treaty, with few exceptions, ever signed between nations has been broken." Einstein at first seemed inclined to dispute this but stopped in his tracks and thought for what seemed to me to be several minutes. "Yes," he finally decided, almost mournfully. "You are quite right."

Birth of the 'Vacant Lot" Proposal

When we discussed other ways by which governments might be persuaded to control nuclear energy, he admitted that he wasn't very hopeful of any reasonable solution from such quarters. He mentioned the gallant efforts of Leo Sizilard and others on the Chicago atomic project to reach President Truman and persuade him not to drop the bomb on a Japanese city. Instead, they suggested, we should notify the Japanese that we had such a bomb and were reluctant to use it. If their government questioned its destructive power, a remote, vacant site should be designated for a demonstration. Unfortunately, Truman chose to disregard the advice. How, then, were we to deal with the problem? We agreed to explore every possible means for controlling the uses of nuclear energy and for educating mankind to the necessity for doing so. Einstein considered the proposed film as a step in that direction, adding that it clearly required additional support. The book from which we took the film's title had been fairly widely noticed, but not to the extent it deserved. That was to be expected, Einstein observed; therefore, an extended educational campaign would be necessary.

Encouraged by Einstein's approval of the script and by his strongly expressed interest and support, I returned to Philadelphia to complete the project. The ultimate film, released in October 1946, was rated by a New York University propaganda-analysis expert as "the most effective documentary that was ever produced."

Alter moving with my family to Princeton in 1949, I was invited to address the recently formed Unitarian Fellowship on the control of nuclear energy. To my surprise, Einstein and his stepdaughter Margot were in the small audience. Some weeks later, he invited me to tea. He had apparently forgotten that we had met, but when I reminded him he inquired after the fate of the film. I told him that its exhibition had been curtailed alter a falling-out between the officers of the Federation and those of the National Committee on Atomic Information. He was appalled and wondered whether anything could be done to rescue its distribution.

But what he wanted to discuss was nuclear disarmament. I had suggested in my lecture that, as a first step to total disarmament, the nations possessing nuclear weapons at that time - the United Slates and the USSR - should agree lo disarm. Einstein thought this a good idea. I still think it is a good idea, but apparently governments do not.

In the course of our discussion he raised the subject of human nature. How were we going to deal with the problem of disarmament when humans, he felt, had such a propensity for aggression? He believed that man was an innately aggressive creature - that was the real problem. To illustrate his point, he told me that he would give his son a smack on the posterior when he behaved naughtily as a boy. With a laugh and a twinkle in his eye, Einstein accompanied his words with a wide, circular motion of his arm, indicating that the smack usually produced the desired effect. He seemed firm in his belief that his son's naughtiness, as well as the spanking administered, were innately reactive, instinctive acts. He considered domestic violence between parents and children but a minuscule example of international violence and aggressiveness.

I indicated that there was more than an indirect relationship between the bodily punishment of children and the development of aggressiveness, that there might be a causal relationship between spanking and various forms of violence, including war. I cited evidence that indicated humankind was not innately aggressive, that there was no such thing as a drive toward destruction, or death instinct, as Freud had postulated; that, indeed, human beings had no instincts at all.

Einstein reacted with incredulity, pointing out that evidence of man's innate aggressiveness was everywhere. He recalled questioning Freud concerning the origins and cure of war. Freud had replied that his observations led to the melancholy conclusion that

"there is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity's aggressive tendencies. In some happy corners of the earth, they say, where nature brings forth abundantly whatever man desires, there flourish races whose lives go gently by, unknowing of aggression or constraint. This I can hardly credit: I would like further details about these happy folk."

The details were available in Freud's day for the Australian aborigines, the Veddas of Ceylon, the Hopi and Zuni Indians, the Pygmies of the Congo and others. The evidence is available for many more peoples today. In spite of Freud's doubts, many such gentle, unwarlike peoples do exist.

What Is the Task of the Open Mind?

Einstein agreed that questioning the obvious was the task of the open mind. In two separate sessions we examined the evidence which showed that not only humans but many other animals learn to be aggressive, rather than being innately so - facts since set out in many books. Einstein spent most of the time listening, questioning, until our last session. He then conceded that the doctrine of man's innate depravity was unsound, and that the newborn strives toward growth, development and fulfillment of its potentialities for cooperation rather than its potentialities for destruction.

When the subject of prejudice entered one of our early conversations, Einstein recalled an incident of mindless anti-Semitism at a conference of physicists. He had approached one of the conferees, whom he had known for some time. "Refusing my outstretched hand," said Einstein with a laugh, "he turned a complete hundred eighty degrees and hurriedly walked away." Aware that the man had on several occasions unsuccessfully attempted to discredit his theories, Einstein seemed to accept the affront with his customary good humor. But the encounter was an omen of what was yet to come -the burning of Einstein's works and his narrow escape from the Nazis.

He showed another aspect of his magnanimity during the McCarthy period. A magazine called the American Mercury, which had been taken over by a reactionary millionaire, listed Einstein and myself as "two Princeton Communists." When I mentioned this to Einstein, he merely laughed. When I wondered whether he would want to do anything about such a libel, he laughed again and said that the best thing to do in such cases is to ignore it.

One of Einstein's notable characteristics was the ease with which he laughed - his fine sense of humor. On one of my early visits, I asked him whether he knew the epitaph written for him:

Here Einstein lies, an enterprising Teuton, Who, relatively speaking, silenced Newton.

He hadn't heard it, but found it amusing. Nor had Einstein heard the following limerick:

Three wonderful people called Stein;
There's Cert and there's Ep and there's Ein.
Gert writes in blank verse,
Ep's sculptures are worse,
And nobody understands Ein.

This amused him, but best of all he liked the story of the two men from the Bronx.

"What is relativity?" wonders the first. "Supposing," explains the second, "an old lady sits in your lap for a minute, a minute seems like an hour. But if a beautiful girl sits in your lap for an hour, an hour seems like a minute."

"And this is relativity?" asks his companion.

"Yes," answers the other, "that's relativity."

"And from this he earns a living?" Einstein laughed heartily at this and remarked that it was one of the best explanations that he had ever heard.

When I asked his opinion of the great acclaim he had received, he replied quite seriously, "It feels like a fraud." He really didn't understand what all the fuss was about. This was not false modesty. Einstein was perfectly serious. I understood, of course, that he was talking about-as one distinguished physicist said of him - "hitting the jackpot not once, but five times." His quintuple "jackpot" (the theory of special relativity, the theory of general relativity, the unified field theory, quantum mechanics and statistical physics), while it had entailed hard work, was really easy for him; the acclaim seemed more than a bit overdone. Those of us who have lived long enough and met many kinds of people know that men and women of genius are seldom vain and that those of lesser achievement often are.

When I was a student in the early 1920s, relativity hit postwar England with a bang. I remember silting up with fellow students late into the night trying to clarify what it really meant.

We understood that Einstein's theories were revolutionary and exciting, but I am not sure that any of us ever developed a clear idea of what Einstein was really saying. To make up for my ignorance, I took to reading books on theoretical physics. One of the things that greatly interested me was the principle of indeterminacy, or, roughly, chance. As a determinist - that is, one who believes that everything has an explicable cause - it seemed to me that only when our knowledge is limited are we unable to reach a specification of the necessary conditions sufficient to explain an effect. I think it was Henry Norris Russell, the astronomer, who preferred to call the principle of indeterminacy "the principle of limited human measurability."

When I asked Einstein about this, he said he firmly believed that only our ignorance prevented us from predicting, in any generated movement of atoms, precisely where each will be. "Good. It is excellent," he said of Russell's principle. "It is, indeed, due to our human limitations that we cannot solve many problems, not because some problems are necessarily insoluble." This was implied in his famous remark, "Subtle is the Lord, but malicious He is not." When asked what he meant by this, he replied, "Nature hides her secret because of her essential loftiness, but not by means of ruse." And on another occasion he put this even more explicitly: "I am at all events convinced that He does not play dice."

On a purely personal matter, I once asked Einstein how many hours he slept. He replied, "Seven." I told him that Napoleon said that he needed only three hours. "Ah," commented Einstein, "but he was such a big boaster!"

During his last years, Einstein was often to be seen walking down Nassau Street, the main street of Princeton, usually accompanied by a friend or his stepdaughter, on his head his favorite knitted cap, in summer in a pullover, in winter in a topcoat. Often, when he happened to pass by, children would call out to him, "Hi, Einstein!" And he would invariably return their greeting with a smile and a wave.

The morning following Einstein's death on April 18, 1955, my editor said, "Princeton must no longer be the same to you without Einstein." It was very true, and continues to be so, as if a piece of the continent had been washed away by the sea. It is a feeling, I am sure, most people in Princeton experienced. It is a feeling, I am sure, much of the world shared.